Sonia O'Sullivan: Summer is the track and field season
It’s good to see Irish athletes like Ciara Mageean putting some marks on the board
Sonia O’’Sullivan of Ireland celebrates winning the mile run in 2004 at the IAAF/Mobil Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway. Photograph: Mike Hewit/llsport
It sounds a little strange for me to be talking about the summer heating up. Something in my bones has been telling me those bright, warm evenings are just around the corner, and not long now until the season I love best.
Only the problem for me is that my seasons have been turned upside down while in Australia, those evenings now getter colder and darker. And of course the mornings too.
It all depends on how you define your summer. And for me, summer will always be defined by the track and field season.
It comes around so quickly, takes a few weeks to ignite, and before you know it the major championship of the year has been and gone, and athletes are hanging on trying to chase fast times as the season fast forwards into September.
In my time, it was the Grand Prix, then the Golden League. Now it’s the Diamond League, the premiership of track and field meetings, slowly warming the summer up over the last few weeks with early season stop-offs in Doha, Shanghai, Eugene and then Rome.
Now this Thursday evening, in Oslo, it’s the turn of the Bislett Games, which for me has always been the place where the summer really heats up, when athletes start to hit their stride and produce world class times, and very often world records too.
The Bislett Games have produced 65 world records down through the years, including the centrepiece race, the Dream Mile, which I know has inspired many a young athletics fans.
I can remember watching Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Steve Ovett all breaking records there in the 1980s, and I always got a sense that there was a little bit of magic in the Bislett Stadium.
When I was first invited to run in Oslo, in 1993, I was hoping some of that magic might rub off on me. Although I never expected to win that night, in the 3,000m, running 8:28.74, five seconds faster than my previous best. It was the then fastest time that summer too and I was starting to believe there really was some magic inside the Bislett stadium.
Even at this early stage of the season there have been plenty of fast times already run, across a range of distances, and this is before athletes really hit their stride as more races appear on the European calendar each week.
As if on cue, it feels like most Irish athletes got a reminder of this, and are beginning to show some form and lay down some indicators of what we can expect when the summer season peaks at the World Championships in London, now just over six weeks away.
In fact mathematically we are already mid-season, and it’s good to see Irish athletes starting to put some marks on the board.
Traditionally, athletes would start out with some low-key races, then gradually pick up pace as the season goes on, building to a peak at the World Championships. After that they might use up all remaining fitness to cash in and run some stress-free races, chasing fast times until the season runs out.
It’s quite different now in that athletes usually come out racing as fast if not faster than where they finished up the year before. There are very few warm-up or low-key races anymore, so it’s usually straight in at the deep end, where sometimes you just have to keep up to survive, then get another chance to race again.
Ciara Mageean had this experience in at the Rome Diamond League meeting last Thursday, where she finished 10th over 1500m, running 4:04.49, her second fastest time ever and securing London World Championship qualification.
This was the also fastest race of the year, led home by Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands, also running her first race of the season and stopping the clock at 3:56.22.
The bar has certainly been raised in women’s 1,500m running, with sub-four minutes now the standard required to be competitive, or at least in with any chance of winning the race. Just three days after racing in Rome, Hassan ran faster again, clocking 3:56.14 in Hengelo.
A lot of this is down to the increased professionalism and attention to fine detail by the best athletes. This season, Hassan has started to train with Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project group, where we all know there are no stones left unturned when it comes to pushing athletes to reach their limits.
Some of the positive performances by Irish athletes over the weekend saw Marcus Lawlor getting up to third fastest Irishman ever over 100m, running 10.30 seconds. Brian Gregan wasn’t far off the London qualifying over 400m with his 45.75, and Mark English was also knocking on the door of the 800m qualifying time, running 1:46.02, also in Hengelo.
Although watching that race from a distance, it looked as if English was racing to catch a train rather than finish a race: he left himself with a lot of catching up to do on the final lap, and had to cut through a lot of traffic to eventually cross the finish line in fourth position.
Sometimes when the pace is really on early in middle distance races, you have to get yourself in a good position to be able to take full advantage, be in the position to compete as you enter the finishing straight.
There are always opportunities for athletes to step outside their comfort zone and go places they have never been before to test the limits, and eliminate the fear of failure.
It’s not something that an athlete can be told to do by a coach: it has to come from within, the ability to leave what you know behind and step up a level, then maintain that level, with a new confidence and belief in your ability.
It’s a nice feeling to hang back, play safe and come flying home, but if you’re flying home and running out of track, there’s a good chance you’ve run a bit too conservatively earlier in the race.
It’s one thing running a race; it’s another sitting on the couch watching and analysing and playing out the perfect result in your mind.
Early in my career, I often ran many races at the back of the field, would come storming through at the finish, only to come up short. This was a habit I knew I had to break.
It was at the 1993 Golden Gala meeting Rome when I found that breakthrough, going with the pace from the start of the mile, and putting aside the fear of falling to pieces in the last lap, finishing in a personal best of 4:22.94. Sometimes you just have to put it all on the line and go as far as you can as fast as you can, and not worry about imploding.
The best example of this lately was also at the Rome Diamond League, where Germany’s Konstanze Klosterhalfen, still only 20, went with the pace from the gun, even challenged the pacemakers when the pace dropped, and held on to finish third in 3:59.36. This is something more athletes should be capable of, and maybe even surprise themselves with, if they can only set it free.